Kalidou Koulibaly the difference as Chelsea scrape opening win at Everton

New signing shows why he can be an upgrade for Thomas Tuchel

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Left-footed centre-backs able to pick a pass are very much in vogue in the modern era, especially in the Premier League.

Manchester United signed Lisandro Martinez solely for the reason he is adept at playing out from the back with his left foot, while Pep Guardiola cannot set his team up without one.

At Chelsea, such a requirement is even more pivotal given they deploy a three-man backline. Over the past few seasons, Antonio Rudiger benefited from his time on the training ground with Thomas Tuchel to become an additional weapon in the role, but new signing Kalidou Koulibaly, in one match-winning pass in Chelsea’s cagey 1-0 opening day win at Everton, showed he could perhaps become an instant upgrade.

After just surviving relegation last season by the skin of their teeth, Evertonians’ optimism for better to come was palpable pre-match.

A tifo of Frank Lampard with his fist clenched like a Soviet leader rallying the workers was unveiled next to an image of the Beatles in Everton scarves, but any positivity soon dispersed after Ben Godfrey was forced off with a nasty-looking injury with just 15 minutes on the clock.

Yet, for all their dominance of possession and mammoth total of 13 first-half corners – two off the Premier League record for corners in the opening period - Chelsea could not find that that killer pass.

It was left to a man not renowned for being a playmaker to unlock the hosts with a slotted pick-out for Ben Chilwell, who was fouled for the penalty that broke the deadlock. It was not the impact most expected from Koulibaly, especially this soon into his English adventure.

It is one of the reasons Chelsea went big for the 31-year-old, for so long overlooked by the biggest European clubs, given he always fulfilled the left centre-back role throughout his time at Napoli.

The accuracy of the pass made it easy for Chilwell to allow the ball to roll into his path, before a clumsy Abdoulaye Doucoure bundled him to the floor, allowing Italy midfielder Jorginho the chance for redemption after England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford had saved his penalty in Euro 2020 final shootout.

There was no hop, skip and jump this time from the midfield metronome. He went the same way as he did at Wembley, but made no mistake. None of which would have been possible without that telling touch from behind.

The defensive side of Koulibaly’s game, as expected, was expertly executed too.

Chelsea finished the season looking very fragile at the back, a world away from the team who were so resolute en route to winning the Champions League in 2021. Two defensive departures, Andreas Christensen and Rudiger, left them in more desperate need of reinforcements at the back, with only one central option – Koulibaly - signed so far. Tuchel’s faith, however, seems well placed.

With the crowd behind them, Everton were applying plenty of pressure late in the opening period and engineered a golden chance on the cusp of the interval, with local hero Anthony Gordon presented with the ball 10 metres out.

Out of nowhere, with all other defenders beaten, across came Koulibaly, to take the ball off Gordon’s toe, to save what appeared to be a certain goal.

It was not spectacular, won’t be talked about for years to come, but as a Premier League bow goes, having waited so long for his dream move to England, it was an impressive afternoon’s work from the Senegal international. At the moment he was substituted late on, looking like he had given every inch, no player on the pitch had won more duels or made more clearances than the debutant.

As Chelsea fans headed for the exits, with three points in the bag, there was one name ringing from the away end. Keep fulfilling a ball-playing role the most successful teams need to call upon as he did at Goodison and those supporters will have a new favourite soon enough.

Updated: August 06, 2022, 7:13 PM
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